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College of Charleston to kick off year of 250th anniversary celebrations

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Aurielle Jefferson and her mother Danielle Jefferson, of Conway, walk through Porter's Lodge on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, as they tour the College of Charleston campus. The college, founded in 1770, is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In 2020, the College of Charleston is celebrating its 250th anniversary, marking a major milestone for the school whose founding in 1770 predates the United States of America.

The anniversary will be an opportunity to celebrate the college's achievements and look to its future. After all, the college has a new president at the helm and a five-year strategic plan on the horizon. 

But the anniversary will also serve as an opportunity for the college to reflect on some of the overlooked stories of its past. 

The College of Charleston hasn’t always been on the right side of history.

From the use of enslaved labor to construct campus buildings in the 1820s to dodging racial integration in the 1940s and 1960s, the college has a complex and turbulent past.

"As we look back, we're recognizing that we haven't done a great job of telling our full history, and there is such a desire to see more of that," said spokesman Ron Menchaca.  

The college has more than 40 events planned throughout the year surrounding the anniversary's theme: "History.Made.Here."

The anniversary is just a starting point in recognizing underrepresented and under-recognized people on campus, said President Andrew Hsu.

"Minority populations have played a significant role throughout the history of the college, and we want to share that complete story in many different ways," Hsu said. 

The public launch of the anniversary will kick off Thursday, marking when former Lt. Gov. William Bull recommended the creation of a provincial college in Charleston to the colony's General Assembly in 1770.

During this celebration, the college will unveil an official South Carolina historical marker along George Street. 

In addition to highlighting key milestones throughout the college's history, it will call attention to the fact the college resisted the enrollment of women until 1918 and sought to avoid racial integration by going private in 1949, Menchaca said. 

"Our complete story is truly remarkable and provides many lessons from which we as a university can learn from and grow," Hsu said. "This recognition of our complex past is only one step in a much longer journey." 

The college's 250th birthday aligns with the 350th anniversary of the city of Charleston, which supported the college’s operation from 1837 to 1949, making the school the first municipal college in the country.

Discovering Our Past

Menchaca serves on the 250th anniversary's Historical Documentation Committee, a group tasked with creating a public history website, mobile app and virtual campus tour highlighting stories of underrepresented communities and their intersection with the college’s past.

"Two hundred and fifty years of history is a lot," said committee member Julia Eichelberger, an English professor and the college's director of Southern Studies. "But we're very conscious of a lot of stories of Charleston and the College of Charleston that have not really been told as well as the history of the sons of plantation owners going to school here.”

The committee has been working for more than a year to research the history of the college and all the people that shaped it into what it is today. The public history project, known as Discovering Our Past, will start with 12 online historical essays linked to sites across campus. 

"Each site is a door to open into, not just that specific site, but to a much larger story, as well," said committee member Harlan Greene, the scholar in residence at the Addlestone Library’s special collections. 

While the project will be launched in the spring as part of the college 250th anniversary, it is intended to be an ongoing initiative. The plan is to add new stories and update existing stories as research continues, Menchaca said. 

The college's Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston is also in the process of completing a long-term project exploring slavery’s impact on the college. The center is developing an African American history tour that will be accessed via the Discovering Our Past website and app. 

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Students walk past Porter's Lodge on the College of Charleston campus near where a historical marker on George Street was to be unveiled. The College of Charleston is celebrating its 250th anniversary. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On Saturday, two days after the anniversary celebrations kick off, the college will host "History Makers & Trailblazers," an event that aims to provide a closer look at the history of access and equity for people of color at College of Charleston.

"I think in the past, celebrations or anniversaries have always been boosterism and celebrations,” Greene said. “I think the college is using this pinpoint in time to not necessarily bang the drum, but to be actually a little bit more introspective.”

A complicated past

Although the college considers 1770 to be its founding year, political disagreements and the American Revolution delayed its chartering until 1785, and the first classes weren't held at the school until 1790. Among the college's founders were three signers of the Declaration of Independence and three signers of the U.S. Constitution. 

The school began as an institution that was created “by the wealth that was derived from slavery,” Eichelberger said.

Once opened, it was designed to be an elite institution meant to educate the sons of wealthy plantation owners or merchants. It was even presented as an alternative to celebrated institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

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Randolph Hall on the College of Charleston campus Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The college is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It remained an institution primarily for the elite until 1837 when the college became the first municipal college in the United States, said Nan Morrison, author of "A History of the College of Charleston, 1936–2008."

It stayed a municipal college until 1949 when, under the leadership of President George Grice, the college became a private institution to avoid desegregation. 

The push toward privatization started after a group of black graduates from the Avery Institute, led by John Wrighten, applied to attend the College of Charleston in 1944. 

"This is kind of the early stages of the traditional civil rights movement, which was energized by World War II and its aftermath," said Bernard Powers, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston and  director of the college’s Center for the Study of Slavery.

Their applications were essentially rejected, Powers said, and by the end of the decade the college had become a private institution. 

The college admitted its first black students in 1967, and the school was incorporated into the S.C. State College System three years later. 

Soon after, under the leadership of President Ted Stern, the college rapidly expanded, both in campus size and in enrollment. In the 1980s and 1990s, the school's enrollment more than doubled to around 10,000 students. 

The first step

Powers commended the college's plans to focus more on the largely overlooked stories of its past.

"I think we've come too far for these issues to now, at the 250th, to be swept under the rug and not really dealt with in a fair, open and honest way," he said. 

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, also applauded the college's efforts.

Acknowledgment is "the first step in fixing anything," she said.

There's still more work to be done, she said, including boosting the college's minority enrollment and addressing its indirect contributions to gentrification on the Charleston peninsula.

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College of Charleston President Andrew Hsu greets mascot Clyde the Cougar with a high-five. Hsu says the college plans to acknowledge those underrepresented in the institution's 250-year history. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

"The college has come a long way. And from what I'm hearing or seeing or feeling about the new president, I really believe we're headed that way," Scott said. "But we're so far behind. We have to move at lightning speed and do big things, bold things, even controversial things, to even begin to look like where we should be in 2020."

The college still struggles to attract students and professors of color, Scott said, and the school's demographics still do not reflect those of the population at large.

Enrollment at the college is 8 percent black; South Carolina's population is 68.5 percent white and 27 percent black, according to the latest census numbers. 

Kristen Graham, curriculum chair for the Intersectional Cougar Action Network, echoed these concerns. 

The College of Charleston needs to do more to address its campus culture, she said, referencing multiple incidents of culturally insensitive Halloween and social media messages that have surfaced at the college over the past three years. 

"We definitely recognize and appreciate the hard work that has been done. We understand that it's nothing that can happen overnight and this work is continuous," Graham said. "But we do feel at times that the way that the institution conducts itself and upholds its stature isn't enough."

The college does have work to do, Menchaca said, but school officials, including Hsu, are "committed to doing it."

"This recognition of our complex past is only one step in a much longer journey," Hsu said. "We, as a college community, are working to transform our present and future so that we, as an institution, are truly a diverse and inclusive campus, one that attracts all races, all ethnicities, all nationalities, all sexualities and all gender identities — and ensures that all feel welcomed."

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif. 

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